Can you hear what’s been said?
Can you see now that everything’s grace after all?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.
–Beggars by Thrice
To me, Thanksgiving is the best holiday. Christmas and Easter commemorate more important events – the most important events of all – but they have been almost completely secularized and commercialized in this culture. Celebrating them in honest and faithful ways can be difficult. Thanksgiving is, perhaps, in this sense, the “purest” holy-day. It is simple and the idea behind it is beautiful: a day set aside expressly for purpose of counting one’s blessings and expressing gratitude (to God) for life and the good things in it.
In the Christian understanding of the universe, life, breath, and everything exist only because God continues to will it so. Jesus is, now, upholding all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). We, as creatures, create and sustain nothing. Whatever we have, we have received. The truth of our humble state is total and absolute dependence on the creation and sustenance of God – whether we acknowledge this or not. “We are beggars all.”
A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. John 3:27
Christians understand this, and it is for expressly this reason that they understand sin as being so heinous. The more one has received, the more wicked one’s ingratitude and wastefulness becomes.
We are prone to live out of a deeply felt sense of entitlement, not gratitude – and none more so than my generation of American young people. We grew up, practically speaking, wealthier than any other generation that has ever lived, with an almost incredible level of affluence and ease of living that has been handed to us by the sweat of our grandparents and parents. We are more educated and more childish than every generation preceding us. We feel fervently entitled to happiness. Ridiculously so.
Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. Gratitude looks at the gifts of God in awe and humility and praise. Entitlement feels constantly deprived and resents every perceived lack, meanwhile ignoring the grace in every undeserved gift. Which one do you live by more often?
Thanksgiving for the Christian is truly sweet. We are privileged in that we know exactly who it is we are thanking (how does an atheist celebrate this holiday?). We personally know the Father of lights from whom every good and perfect gift comes (James 1:17). We alone can say, “Thank you, Father – Abba – Papa – Daddy.”
The privilege of our relationship with God and our status in his eyes, mediated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, which removes our sin as far as east is from west and brings us as close to the Father as the Son is to him, is of course the greatest grace of all. It is absurd that entitlement-minded sinners can call a holy God “Daddy.” Yet, it is so, because Jesus suffered the cross and tore the curtain in two. The thing for us to do, therefore, is pray, write songs and poems, make spontaneous art, lift our voices, and thank God.
G. K. Chesterton wrote of St. Francis that Francis saw the world upside down. Heavy palaces and cathedrals, usually thought of as being more firmly rooted on the earth and more permanent than anything else, are instead most in danger of falling off completely, precisely because of their weight. The mere fact that God continues to hold the thread by which our world dangles moved Francis to a profound sense of gratitude and dependence which lasted his entire life.
Thanksgiving really is a way of life, a way to see the world. It is a habit of prayer. To always pray “with thanksgiving,” following Paul’s commands in Philippians 4:6 and Colossians 4:2, changes how you process life. It reverses entitlement and transforms it into grateful humility, which is in every way a more joyful place to be. To stay thankful when loss threatens saves the soul from total despair because to stay thankful is to remain steadily at rest in the immeasurable grace of God. And – thankfully – thanksgiving keeps you on speaking terms with God, no matter what.
Jesus told his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8 NIV). The logical successor of gratitude is generosity, since whatever you have, you too have received as a gift. Beggars become givers in God’s kingdom.
To close I’ll share with you all I poem I love that repeatedly stirs me to gratitude towards God, even in the face of humanity’s violence and destruction.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
–God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877, discovered here.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.